Chapter Description: Standoff.
Devra detected a distinct gurgle of anticipation in her stomach as the elevator car rode down the shaft. She tried imagining the look on her husband’s face when he first discovered the changes. Wide eyes, she thought, and his mouth... probably agape... terrified I’m sure. It seemed fitting. That had been the look on her face when she first noticed Sara giving her husband a little pat on the tush at work. “An innocent gesture” Daniel had called it. Innocent, she mused. I’ll make sure it’s innocent next time.
Meanwhile, Stephen anxiously probed the thirty-fourth floor. He couldn’t imagine why they might opt to become children rather than adults... or could he? What would be the point? he thought, as he crept down each row of cubicles. The similarity of the floors was disorienting, each level the same as the last. A building for people with no imagination.
”Sara, are you in here, honey?” he said, with his words falling dead in the musty air of the office space. “Honey?”
On the 8th Floor...
”Keep searching,” Sara implored. “I can’t believe there’s a woman who can bend time and no one on the net has heard of her.”
”Well, this is the stuff of tabloids, Sara. Maybe we should just fess up and take what’s coming to us.” Daniel inched the search page further and further down.
”That’s your answer? Give up? Daniel, look at me,” she ordered.
Daniel turned toward his shrunken assistant, the sleeves of his jacket drooping down her sides and nearly touching the floor. Her cheeks were puffy and red, and Daniel thought he saw one tear forming in the corner of her eye.
”What we did back there... I mean, I don’t want to give that up.” She flapped her wing-like sleeves. “Even if we have to grow up again... or whatever... I want to know you mean what you said up there.”
They embraced. “I’m sure you were a really cute baby,” Daniel half-joked. “I’m going to have to talk to Devra one way or another and you will have to talk to Stephen, but whatever happens, we can’t go back. I can’t go back. Not now.”
With that, she hugged him even tighter, leaned over, and whispered in his ear, “Keep trying then.”
The Google search seemed to be leading nowhere. “Try another search engine. Anything,” Sara insisted.
Daniel typed in the only other one he knew: www.alltheweb.com. It was long shot, but neither could believe that the internet actually had a hole. Once again, he typed “Ms. Madhat” and got nothing, then “Madhat curse” and still nada, and finally out of curiosity “Madhat elevation.” The search returned only one webpage, but the text produced an exact match, or close enough.
”Click on it!” Sara said, motioning frantically at the screen.
The page was a simple, ad-supported homepage - nothing fancy. The heading read: “The Secrets of Maximilian Madhat.” Below were seven links, each consisting of foreign-looking characters Daniel was not familiar with. He didn’t know what else to do, so he clicked on the first link. The title of the page once again baffled him, but after scrolling down, an English translation appeared, or at least he presumed. The content was dense and both wondered if they had time to read what appeared to be the entire history of something, though neither was quite sure what. The first few paragraphs dealt with some complex form of alchemy, littered with equations and footnotes. In frustration, Daniel scrolled to the bottom in the hopes of finding some kind of summary or, at the very least, a definitive statement that tied together what was ostensibly a nebulous collage of mumbo jumbo.
Luckily a brief abstract of sorts appeared at the foot of page. As Daniel read on, he discovered the concluding text was not a summation, but an ambiguous caveat. It read:
Applications and Limitations of Hex #114
As with any hex involving time-space, exercise extreme caution when concentrating energies on the receiving party. The Madhat Methodology, as you have likely surmised, implies that balance must be maintained at all costs, ergo the secondary subject cannot and should not under any circumstances question the modus operandi. Sublimation of the secondary subject remains paramount, for it is the “method of the madness.” As always, a chance, however small, will exist that the hex may be broken (usually within the initial 24 hours). If the modus operandi becomes evident, the hex constant becomes null and the primary subject may be implicated in order to bring balance ...
Daniel and Sara continued scanning the page.
”Modus operandi,” he repeated. “Hexes, sublimation... This is a maze.” Daniel wiped the sweat from his forehead. Even the language of lawyers seemed easier to unravel than this mystical labyrinth of ten dollar words.
”Well, you went to school,” Sara said, patting the fourth-grader on the back.
”So did you,” he retorted.
”Well, you went longer.”
Daniel’s breaths seemed shorter. ”Words aren’t the problem. I just don’t have any reference point here. This is all theoretical language. It mentions a timeframe, though. Twenty-four hours. But even if I understood it all, I wouldn’t have any clue what we can do right now to change any of this.”
Sara’s expression melted into a pitiful grimace. Her eight-year-old face could hardly hold it. She looked on the verge of tears - tears that would not be out of character at her current age. “I don’t want to be a baby...”
”I don’t want to either, trust me,” Daniel said. “But we have to start thinking about that possibility.”
Sara put her head on his shoulder. “But I won’t even be old enough to talk. I’ll be in diapers, Daniel. And you... you’ll only be a toddler. And who’s going to take care of us? Your wife and my husband? Can you imagine that? After seeing us like this?”
”Now, we don’t know that for sure,” Daniel said, though he knew Sara was right. He just didn’t want to think about it.
“But hey...“ Daniel pepped up. “It’s like a second lifetime. A second chance. That can’t be all bad. It’s like we’ve discovered the fountain of youth. People all over the world spend their lives looking for...“
”People want to be sixteen again. Nobody wants to be really young,” Sara said, trying to hide her sniffles. “Just look at us now. And there are seven more floors to go.”
”I know,” Daniel said, thinking as hard he could. What did it all mean? “Maybe there’s some hope in this after all. If this is what we’re assuming it is, then we know hexes can be broken. We just have to figure out how.”
Sara’s frown failed to disappear. ”It’s probably not a great time to mention it, but I’m starving,” she said.
”You haven’t eaten?”
”Not since lunch, and that was only noon.”
”Did you bring anything?”
”Well, there’s always the snack lounge--” Daniel offered.
Sara just stared at him. “Daniel, you know where that is.”
”Oh... yeah.” Daniel said, shrugging.
”God, I’m so hungry though. It wouldn’t be that long, I guess,” Sara said.
”You’re not thinking about...” Daniel stopped. “It’s too risky. What if you run into one of them?”
”I’ll be careful.”
”No, no, no. Let me go. I’m older. I should go.”
”Are you sure?” Sara asked.
”I’ll be fast. You just stay here...” Daniel unwadded his pants and searched for the pockets. From them, he dug out a couple dollar bills and some change, and then set the crumpled mass down on the floor.
”Thank you,” Sara said, hugging him one more time.
He looked at her with a curious smirk. “This brings a whole new meaning to ?I want to grow old with you,’ doesn’t it?”
She mustered a bright, young smile. “If we ever get out of this, I owe you one.”
Daniel couldn’t believe what he was about to do. Clad only in his old shirt and nothing else, the intrepid ten-year-old opened the door to the stairs gingerly and listened for any suspicious sounds. After waiting thirty seconds or thereabouts, Daniel entered the chilly stairwell once again. I must really like this girl, he thought, as his bare feet touched the cement floor. Thinking ahead, he took off his watch - the one he’d already readjusted far too many times that night - and stuck in his shirt pocket.
With his toes on the edge of the stair, he hesitated momentarily. He looked, took a deep breath, and stepped down. Already that odd feeling crept over him; it was an otherworldly sensation unlike anything else he had ever experienced. It was different, however, from the almost orgasmic pleasure he had felt coming down the first time. Though no less enjoyable now, it lacked that sexual factor. And for the third time that night, he could sense himself shrinking, ever so slightly with each step, becoming more and more of a child. He didn’t dare look down or feel around, but he knew what was happening anyway. All those things he had taken for granted - his maturity, his height, his size - were gradually leaving him. By the sixth floor, the changes were evident by how low his shirt hung on his body; the bottom nearly touched his ankles. Soon, it would drag along the ground. The railing seemed much higher now as well.
”What the hell am I doing?” Daniel muttered to himself.
Remembering when he used to pose in his dad’s work shirts, he could only laugh at how lengthy his sleeves had become. By the fifth floor, he could feel the thin row of baby teeth returning to his mouth. His height had decreased dramatically in only a few floors. This left him a sweet-faced first-grader. Finally, the seven-year-old reached the door.
On the 5th Floor...
Heaving it open with every bit of muscle, Daniel stared out into the lifeless office space. The cubicle walls seemed much higher, not to mention more intimidating. Though he expected it, his new perspective still managed to surprise him. For the first time that evening, Daniel actually felt like a child, through and through. It had been over twenty years since he had to look up to everything, and the realization distressed him.
Quickly, he regained his bearings and ran past the main offices and into the decidedly modest and austere Snack Lounge. Luckily, he found the door unlocked. Daniel was surveying his choices - Pepsi, Hershey bars, Skittles, Hot Pockets - when he heard the familiar metal cling of the elevator. Though he couldn’t see out the window and above the fortress of cubicles, he knew the sound of those doors opening. And he could see a flashlight beam darting across the ceiling.
”Damn it,” he whispered. Clearly, he knew what he had to do - hide. His decreased stature might come in handy this time around. Not wanting to attract any attention, Daniel decided to stay in the Snack Lounge and squeeze himself behind one of the vending machines. A close fit, no doubt, but better than any of the alternatives.
Then, he heard his wife calling, “Daniel? Oh, Daniel?” He noticed the tone of her voice. It wasn’t particularly frantic. It wasn’t even angry. In fact, it sounded perfectly normal, as if she were calling his name at home. “Daniel? Honey?” And it was getting closer.
”Daniel?” The voice echoed off the Snack Lounge walls.
Crammed between the Pepsi machine and the wall, Daniel stood, shivering. The moment brought back memories of games of hide-and-go-seek, which were unquestionably more fun the first time around. This time it was clear the seekers did not intend on giving up. In the silence, he could hear Devra’s breathing. He knew her all too well.
Then Devra suddenly let out a frustrated sigh. Daniel heard change dropping into the machine, followed by a buzz, and then the thud of a can falling out. Next came beeping sounds, a cell phone Daniel guessed, and the sound of dialing. Keeping his breaths shallow, he avoided pressing any harder against the vending machine. Remaining as still as possible, he listened.
”Stephen. Any luck? Well, nothing here either. I’m beginning to think the little brats have decided to hide out.”
Little brats?! Daniel thought. Oh my God, she knows!
”You’re right.... This may take a little longer than we had planned. But we know they’re here,” Devra continued. “... Yeah, I’m on the fifth floor.”
”Well, who knows? Maybe they’re reliving some kindergarten memories. How the hell should I know?...“ She laughed. “Are you sure? Hey, you’re welcome to come and look down here if that’s where you think they would go... Well, you know Sara better than I do. OK... Talk to you later.”
Daniel heard the sound of her flip-phone snapping shut.
”Well, where are you, Daniel?” Devra sang to herself as she popped open the Pepsi. “And where is your little girlfriend, huh?”
Hearing his wife’s monologue was disconcerting. He could barely process it. Suddenly, the signature on the backside of Ms. Madhat’s note made sense. Number two, he thought. It was an old phrase Devra threw out in an argument once. She said he was treating her like she wasn’t even a priority. Back then, his number one commitment was work. And she was a distant number two. She knew all along, Daniel thought. Flirting with Sara in front of Ms. Madhat had nothing to do with their current predicament. Devra and Stephen had done this. They were working as a team. The thought of it sent a chill down Daniel’s backside. Now the picture became all too clear, and Daniel could only picture himself, not even pre-school age, and Sara, an infant being diapered by his ex-wife, in what would be his “new” family.
I have to get back, Daniel thought, as he heard Devra click her flashlight back on. What about Sara?he wondered. He needed to tell her. But he waited. And waited. The stakes seemed much higher now and Daniel wasn’t about to take any needless chances. After what felt like lifetimes, he slowly pulled himself out of his hiding spot. With little time for food, he darted past the vending machines and out the door. Devra was nowhere in sight; granted, Daniel’s height didn’t allow for much of a view. What seemed like only a race before now felt more urgent. If Devra and Stephen had orchestrated this, then what might they have in store next?
Staying as quiet as humanly possible, Daniel eventually found himself inside the sub-zero stairwell once again. Wasting no time, he scurried up the stairs. With each step, his legs and arms lengthened, steadily returning him to his previous ten-year-old glory. The ends of his shirt no longer tickled his ankles and his facial features became more defined. The change in size threw off his balance occasionally, making it difficult to run up the stairs, but he managed. By the eighth floor, he was a strapping fourth-grader again - a change he never thought he would welcome.
On the 8th Floor...
”Sara, Sara. It’s Daniel...”
The eight-year-old girl extricated herself from her cramped hiding spot under a desk. “What happened?” she asked.
”I didn’t get any food. My wife was on the fifth floor. I overheard her cell phone conversation.”
”And it’s them. Your husband and my wife are in on this. They must have hired the Madhat lady, or at least known about the curse. That’s why they’re looking for us,” a nearly breathless Daniel replied.
”Yes, they know about us. I don’t know how long they’ve known, but whatever the case, they’re after us now.”
”What in the hell possessed them to do this?” Sara asked incredulously.
”Your guess is as good as mine.”
”Did Devra ever say she wanted,” Sara paused in mid-thought, “...kids?”
”Sure, maybe. I don’t know. That was a long time ago. I thought she’d gotten over it.”
”Maybe she hasn’t.”
”Look, what we need to do is stall for time. There must be a way out of the curse, a loophole or something. I think that webpage was saying that Madhat curses have a window of twenty-four hours. If we can figure out whatever this ?modus operandi’ is, then maybe we have a fighting chance,” Daniel explained as calmly as he knew how.
”But you said it yourself -- we’re clueless. The webpage was a bunch of jargon, but what did it mean?”
Daniel’s eyes softened. He hated to see Sara reduced to the pessimistic state he’d been in since the night began. It was unbecoming of such an adorable child - and she was that. Not even an hour had passed since the shrunken couple had resorted to childhood and already they were having trouble seeing each other as anything but kids. Floors above them awaited their adulthood, but both were finding it difficult to do anything but stay put. Part of them wanted to commence with the inevitable. If the only viable passage out of the Fairfax building was as children, neither one of them wanted to revisit their adult bodies again; that might only remind them of what they were going to lose.
Sara looked at her favorite guy, and pinched his rosy cheek.
”So what was it like being seven again?”
Daniel mustered a halfhearted smile. “Well, it wasn’t exactly my best age.”
”I’ll bet you were the cutest.”
”I don’t seem to remember having any girlfriends at that age.”
”Well, you do now,” Sara said, planting a quick kiss right on Daniel’s lips. With that, she grew an almost devilish little grin, one that spelled “first kiss.” And in a strange way, it was.
“So if all this goes down and we... you know, end up walking around in diapers, can I count on you to wait up for me?” Sara asked, smiling, but with a face that told Daniel she wasn’t kidding.
”I don’t think you need to worry about that,” he said. “I’ll be there.”
”But it’ll be fifteen years before I can even drive a car.”
”I won’t be that far ahead of you, Sara.”
”I know, but it just bothers me. The whole thing is too, too strange. If I go down that elevator,” Sara said, motioning toward the sealed doors, “I’ll be twelve months old. Twelve months!”
”I know it’s hard to grasp, but look as us now. We’re the ages we were in elementary school and somehow, we’re dealing with it. We have to deal with it. We don’t have a choice--”
Daniel’s speech was cut off by the sound of elevator doors opening. Both of them immediately ducked behind the desk in what had become a reflex for them over the last several hours. They both heard footsteps, moving more rapidly than before, and in their direction.
”This is it,” Sara said. “I can feel it.”
”We’re going to have to make a break for it. Whoever it is they’re coming this way.”
Their pulses raced like never before. Daniel listened. Sara began hyperventilating. It seemed the whole evening had been headed inexorably toward this regrettable confrontation. The clock was running out on their game and both of them knew it. Daniel’s life flashed before his eyes, only the events played in reverse. Meanwhile, Sara could feel her palms grow wet with sweat.
”Now! Go!” Daniel said, pushing his way out of the cubicle. Determined not to be captured without a fight, he made his mad dash sans pants or underwear. With his shirt flapping like a cape and his heart racing, he plowed past a surprised Stephen.
”Wha..?” Stephen uttered, watching the boy fly by. “Hey!”
Confused, Stephen only began running after Daniel, but decided that his bride must be close by. He watched the half-clothed Daniel reach the stairs and turn back.
”Sara? Sara!?” he yelled. No Sara.
Frantic, Daniel yanked open the door to the stairs and ran through.
Momentarily shocked that the curse had apparently succeeded, Stephen slowly peeked around the corner of the cubicle. Pressed against the wall, he discovered a girl clad only in a men’s sport coat and tangled dress. With her eyes lowered and head hung, the little brunette didn’t make any motion to get away.
”Sara? Is that you?” Stephen said.
The girl didn’t answer.
He couldn’t believe his eyes. His wife, his love, now a girl no older than eight, sat on the carpet in the corner. He had doubted the crazy old lady’s claims before when she said she could cast hexes on people, but here was the tangible proof.
Carefully, he leaned down and moved closer.
”Honey?” He reached out to touch her shoulder.
With a sudden jerk, Sara ripped his arm away and shot up. Brushing past her husband, she darted like undersized sprint runner. But her stride was far too short to outrun her 5’ 8” husband. Within mere feet, he caught up with her and grabbed her sides.
”Get off! Let me go!” she screamed.
Stephen struggled to keep a hold of his young wife. He held onto the material of the sport coat and wrapped his arms around her waist. It was quite a chore, as Sara fought hard to free herself. But to no avail.
”Don’t! Honey! It’s all right. I want to help!”
”I know what you’re doing!” Sara said, continuing to bat at him.
”What are you talking about? Calm down!”
Finally, Stephen got a final hold on Sara, with both his arms firmly locked around the unruly eight-year-old. He hoisted her over his shoulder with her legs dangling on his chest and her fists beating his back.
”I’ve been looking for you all night, honey,” Stephen said, as if everything was normal. “I know what’s been happening.”
Stephen carried Sara to the stairs, opened the door, and started walking down. “Everything’s gonna be all right. You’ll see.”
”No!” Sara shrieked, as her man began descending to the 7th floor. “Don’t go down! No!”
”No use in fighting it, honey!”
On the 10th floor, Daniel froze when he heard Sara. “Oh, no.” Immediately, he knew Stephen must be taking her down. The sound of her voice, growing ever higher and childlike, emanated throughout the open stairwell.
Now approaching the 6th floor, Stephen could feel the girl heaped on his shoulder becoming lighter and lighter. A younger Sara continued to struggle, wiggling as much as she could, but the fight was becoming more futile with every second. The kindergartener knew she was losing, as her view of the floor became steadily higher and higher. By the 5th floor, her size diminished further as her babyhood was coming into sight.
”Sara??” Daniel yelled from five floors above.
”Daniel??” she shouted, her vocal chords so small that she sounded completely different. Soon, she had been demoted to the age of four, then three. Her body grew powerless and weak with each step. It was as if she suddenly entered another world, a parallel dimension where she inhabited the wrong body. So distraught, she hardly noticed how wonderful she felt, physically anyway. The feeling turned amazingly intense by the bottom floors as Sara transformed into an infant of two. Her limbs turned to short, chubby appendages while her looks melted back into toddlerhood. The last of her unique features dissolved into the soft, round face of a baby. Her beautiful dark brown locks thinned to strands. Daniel’s old coat had long fallen off, leaving Sara stark naked.
From above, Daniel listened as her cries changed into the squeals of a babe. The gravity of the moment hit him and realized her had lost her to Ms. Madhat’s spell.
No matter how hard she kicked, Sara couldn’t even slow her now-huge husband. She gazed at her fingers as they turned to useless, stubby little things. She found herself longing to be back on the 33rd floor where all was normal. But the pleasurable tingling brought her back to reality. All she could do now was to wait for the final step, the one that would convert her to baby, once and for all.
Finally, Stephen set foot on the ground floor with a baby girl nestled in his arms.
”See,” Stephen said, running his finger over Sara’s simple, angelic face, “everything is going to be just fine.”